The night of December 8, 1660 an innovative theatrical performance was held by the Kings Theater Company at the Vere Street Theatre in England. This night was a pivotal success in the fight for female equality.
Margaret Hughes, a brave, notably pretty woman caught they eye of King Charles II and was given special permissions to play the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello. If you're unfamiliar with Othello, the story for Desdemona goes like this: The kind, faithful young lady Desdemona is to be married to the warrior Othello who has many enemies, one being scheming Iago. Iago tricks Othello into believing Desdemona has slept with another man. In his rage, Othello murders Desdemona--only realizing after the magnitude of his sinful foolishness. Although Margaret was subjected to cruel, harassing, and sexist remarks especially regarding the subjugated role she was required to play, she still soldiered on and paved a brighter path for women and girls that hadn't been open before. She is quoted as saying: "I have been treated as a freak, rather like the fat lady at the circus."
Margaret may have been the first actress to be pressured by her agent to remove her top for a photo shoot. It is said she did not want to show her breasts, but gave in when the pressure was too great. They said no one would see her shows if she didn't.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Hughes
The right for women to act was won with force, rather King Charles simply liked watching women on stage. So, one day shortly after Margaret's groundbreaking performance, he made a decree: no longer would female roles be payed by men. Only women were to play women parts. This was such a shocking turn of events that the entire theater industry changed forever. Suddenly, all the male actors playing females were turned out and attitudes toward them soured in a lightly veiled homophobia. Before this mandate, these men were cherished and trained from very young for these feminine abilities. Without legal sanction, these men lost their jobs and reputations. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of girls had a new dream: to be an actress telling stories on the stage.
If you want more on this story check out the 2004 De Niro movie "Stage Beauty". This film depicts the original cross-dressing Desdemona in the 1650's: Ned Kynaston when he must face his usurping as the best female--male actor to his friend and fellow actor Margaret Hughes as she gets the chance of the millennia to take the stage for the first time.
First Known Audience Theater in Athens, Greece.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysia
In Greek tragedies and comedies, it wasn't uncommon for actors to wear masks. This made it more believable for audiences that it was a woman-like figure they were supposed to be seeing. Some plays were designed to mock women through the mere male portrayal of them, but some were written for a more realistic ownership of the female character. Strategies of decreasing this cognitive dissonance on stage was choosing smaller, younger boys whose voices hadn't dropped yet. Later on, schools of theater specialized in training and procuring feminine boys for the troupes gained prominence.
Not all women everywhere were barred from the stage, pockets of comedy troupes along the Italian and Romanian country side delighted in the taboo of allowing a woman or two on their stage. Far from prying monarch and papal officials, through the 1500's-1700's these masque troupes were able to employ women--although they still weren't allowed to write or publish any content. Unfortunately, these women faced intense levels of discrimination, sexualization, and even violence.
"In Renaissance England it was illegal for women to perform in theatres, so female roles in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights were originally played by cross-dressing men or boys. (See also Stage Beauty.) Therefore, the original productions of the Shakespeare plays actually involved double-cross-dressing: male actors playing female characters disguising themselves as males. Academic research into the contemporary attitudes towards the practice have yielded a variety of interpretations. Laura Levine argues that "an all-male acting troupe was the natural and unremarkable product of a culture whose conception of gender was "teleologically male""; she also suggests that contemporary protests against the practice (believing it made young actors "effeminate") reflected "deepseated fears that the self was not stable and fixed but unstable and monstrous and infinitely malleable unless strictly controlled."
Thus, many roles written before the 1700's were written with this new female avenue in mind. After the 1700's, the parts written for women suddenly became more real, but at the same time more fan serviced as male writers struggled to attract audiences with shocking sexuality resulting in two dimensional female tropes for the next hundred years. Not much has changed in Hollywood today, although we are trying. To pass a Bechdel test, a film or production must " (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man." Sadly, under 1000 movies since the 1900's pass this test, and no surviving plays from before then seem to either. Although we have come a long way in opportunity for female entertainers, all around the world women and girls still face the constrictions Margaret Hughes faced over 300 years ago.